As many of you probably know, I am finishing up my first year of the ThM program at Dallas Theological Seminary.  It has been a wonderful experience overall, yet filled with a few holes of personal challenges and discouragements.  But these cannot be compare with the glory of attending seminary and I am very delighted that God in His providence, saw fit to bring me to DTS.

My motivation to attend seminary is probably not uncommon to many others.  Becoming more in tune with increased definition and passion around spiritual gifts and interests, the intense and specialized training that seminary would provide seemed to be the next logical step.  However, I have discovered that while the fuel may be ministry driven, there is a wide spectrum of expectations regarding the seminary experience and theological learning.   Moreover, I have found it naive to presume that all are there for intense theological training or even ministry.

In fact, now that I have my first year just about under my belt, I have learned that the view from inside is quite different than the view from outside.  From my own perspective, the experiences, classes, people has well, given me a different perspective than when I first started.  In other words, whatever I had envisioned seminary to be I have experienced a somewhat different picture. And I still have 3 more years to go so I imagine that there are more adjustments to take place.

Even more so, I have to imagine that as much as my own perspective has changed, that for many outside the seminary gates there are perception or misperceptions about what seminary is about: the learning process, training, instruction, program requirements and even the people, that are part of the seminary experience.  So I wanted to share some insights and experiences that hopefully will dispel any myths about seminary and maybe even garner some sympathy 🙂

Theological Training

This is the whole enchilada, you might be thinking. No doubt, this is at the heart of seminary learning.  It is learning the “big words” as Michael’s recent post illuminated, about theological topics and development.  And I was expecting this.  Having taken most of the TTP courses, my expectation was TTP intensified.  I envisioned students in constant wrangling sessions with each other and with professors about key doctrinal issues and deviations.  I assumed that each class would invite the opportunity for professors to squeeze every bit of brain power and information from students and grilling them with the socratic method in order to effectively argue varying theological positions.

I do get the impression that when folks outside think of the seminary learning, there is the picture of learning about theological development and positions in this manner. But that’s all, that it consists of a series of academic exercises with no tangible connection to spiritual growth or development.   I have found that this is simply not the case.  Don’t get me wrong.  The program is intense and weighty academic topics are taught, especially for the ThM program (as opposed to the MA programs).  And professors do want to engage students in a learning process, but it is not to tear them down but to build them up.  Yes, there is the expectation of learning in an academic format but is motivate out of a nurture and encouragement.   And the theological training is entrenched in a spiritual foundation that is highlighted with each class, that always starts with prayer.

And I have been blown away at how some of the classes have caused me to reflect very deeply about my own faith and commitment to Christ, such as World Missions and Spiritual Life.  The professors had a way of placing the academic learning in a Scriptural context that was both convicting and humbling.  Each class, in fact, always redirects the core foundation of Christ and Scripture. Even Greek, which is probably the most intensely academic discipline that I have discovered.  Greek is grueling, I will not lie but constantly begs to honestly consider the Biblical text and reflect on important theological truths in context of God’s redemptive plan for His creation.  And one thing I will probably never say again is “in greek, this word means X”.  As we are getting into more translation, we always have to consider the context…ALWAYS.

More significantly, there are the constant reminders even through the academic learning, to stay true to the only real foundation of being there in the first place, to glorify the risen Savior and point others towards Him.  Chapel messages reinforce this to always keep Christ first and our educational process second (especially when Chuck Swindoll speaks)  And so often I have heard to not neglect the more significant things, precious communion with God, with family and with friends.

So this does not mean to neglect theological training in favor of devotions, but to always consider the context of our learning.  Because on the flip side, I have discovered that not all want to engage in theological discourse.  It does make me wonder if seminary training is about getting a degree and little else.  My position is to milk it, to take advantage of the tremendous resources available, namely the professors.  Pick their brain, ask questions and expound on recent illuminations and learning.  I welcome correction because here is the time be wrong rather than graduate and lead others in error.  In fact, I recently wrote an article for the school paper (yet to appear) encouraging my fellow students to make sure that checking one’s theology is on the checklist.  Because we can go through the academic process and meet requirements, without ever contending with our own positions and thoughts about God.  So I get a little concerned with that student that does not seem too interested in theological discourse and can only hope that at least in private, there is a mindset of any needed reconciliation.

Balancing Priorities

I’ll be honest, this is tricky.  The workload is intense and for someone like me, that really wants to dig in stop and smell the historical developed roses, sometimes there just isn’t time.  You read as much as you can, while you can and wherever you can and often, I have felt it has not been enough.  There is always a paper or some other written assignment that is due and sometimes you can feel that you are just trying to keep up with the work and get the assignments done.   For me, seminary is more than getting assignments done or even getting good grades.  Learning is where its at but the pace can put a damper on that.  Thank God for the 2 week breaks to catch up and dig in!  Nonetheless, I think that if one is not mindful or desirous of the learning process, seminary can divulge into a sea of deadlines and nothing else and what a tragedy that would be.

One of the biggest temptations is to substitute the reading assignments and chapel for personal Bible study and church.  I think how this priority is balance will determine alot of the value of seminary training and whether it was a means to an end or means to the end of where real ministry begins.  It does not surprise me that there are those who come out of seminary and quit ministry within 5 years.  Seminary is the time to deepen fellowship with the Father not substitute it.  The work load is great and this is one of the biggest dangers I see.

Personal Development

One of the most significant things that I’ve learned is that ministry training extends beyond the classroom.  Yes, there is the expectation that students will be involved in ministry and just about everyone that I know is actively engaged in ministry at their church.  But that is not what I’m talking about.  I have discovered that just about every student experiences some degree of trials while in school, that challenges soon present themselves threatening distraction or even abandonment of the program.  And I personally think this is divinely orchestrated to foster servant leadership while still in school as part of the training process for ministry leadership.  Growth under pressure.

I think this is a necessary part of personal development and training for leadership.  I don’t think there could be little more tragic than that person who has gone unchallenged, graduates with a DTS (or any other seminary for that matter) certificate in hand and falls on their face in ministry because personal issues had gone unaddressed while in school.  The first two years we follow a Spiritual Formation curriculum, which consists of personal growth and development in a small group with about 5-6 other people (same gender).  That’s the platform to really pay attention to personal pitfalls and address whatever needs to be addressed. It is here, I think, where the fork in the road can occur between integrity and masking.  I shudder at the person who might give lip service to this process but in their heart, are determined to fulfill their own agenda that may have little to do with the servant leadership that DTS aims to foster.

So personal integrity is indeed fostered.  There is a tremendous amount of self-reporting that is needed such as chapel attendance, reading reports and even take home exams.  It is left to the individual person to be honest.   Here is where I think small lapses can occur where the demands of the program become more important that personal integrity.  Some will fudge here and there, indicating they did work they did not do or opening up material that shouldn’t be opened during an exam.  I am reminded that its the little foxes that spoil the vines, those small seemingly insignficant lapses that can widen to broader and more noticable lapses if remained unchecked.  I am already aware of those fudge and it makes me look at my own integrity a little harder.

In the end, it does come down to choice, priorities and what one does with the seminary training.  I was reminded today in chapel that education is nothing in and of itself.  All the systematic theology, language, history, Bible exposition, preaching, and ministry training classes are meaningless if applied towards disingenuous intent and selfish pursuits that may even serve detrimental to the glory of Christ and destructive to His church.  But I am also reminded that the training is vital to learn to accurately handle the precious word of God and to honestly lead others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.  THAT is the whole enchilada and what should compel any leader to take seminary training really serious.   Moreover, I think it should give us pause to apply a standardized assessment of someone that has attended seminary, simply because they have attended.

    28 replies to "Observations From the Shelf: An Inside View of Seminary"

    • roger e. olson

      Bravo. Well done sister! Take a well deserved break, but remember your words. Sometimes they came back to encourage you!

    • Matt

      Wow! What a fantastic article. Thanks for sharing your experience so far. I have just started my seminary education through Denver Seminary – in fact, I have just enrolled in my first 2 classes. I am currently living in Crete so will be starting out with the online classes that I can take while I finish up what I am doing here (Hopefully the online classes will be effective, but I know that I need that face to face interaction). After that, it will be a complete change of life for my family and I as we head to Denver for the rest of my education.

      We already understand the huge impact this is going to have on our lives as I leave my job in the IT industry for what God has been calling me to do for years. It is great to read about others’ experiences with seminary education and this article has been one of the best I’ve read so far. I can already tell that the experience is going to be a little different than what I expected.

      Thanks again and may God continue to bless you!

    • Lisa Robinson

      Matt, you’d be interested to know that your new president at Denver come fall, is currently my World Missions professor, Mark Young. Its the one class that I’m taking on line (the other 3 are on campus) and his lectures have completely blown me away. His depth and insight is truly remarkable and I’m glad I got to take him before he left DTS. You all are getting a gem.

    • Sallie Wilson

      thanks for your thoughts and response to your first year at DTS. I’m so glad to hear of the small group for accountability and growth. So important to have this support during your years there.

      Having taken a few seminary courses I can see where a person could get so overwhelmed by all the work just to get the degree. The intense study of several courses at once plus the rest of life can be daunting. Just more information does not a strong Christian or effective leader make though It is easy to forget the process is as important as the end result, getting finished and moving on.

    • Jason Chamberlain

      I’m finishing up my third year as I work part-time on a MDiv. I’m in the position of trying to get an MDiv while married with two young children and working full-time. I stay pretty busy!

      Lisa — you hit on so many great truths here. One of the big things I’ve learned is that seminary is a good time to have everything I believe challenged to some degree so that I can clearly articulate why I believe what I say I believe. It’s not fun to experience this, but I don’t want to just have my pre-existing beliefs validated.

      Keep at it sister. It looks like you have your head on straight.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Jason, I’m doing this is a single parent (11 year old son). So I’m balancing parenting, school and work. I can emphasize!

      I appreciate your openness to being challenged. I agree, it is the best time to check our theology. I can’t tell you how much I’ve had to do this just in the first year. And that’s with agreeing with everything on the doctrinal statement.

    • ScottL

      Lisa –

      As always, thank you for sharing your heart with us.

      You had noted: ‘One of the biggest temptations is to substitute the reading assignments and chapel for personal Bible study and church…Seminary is the time to deepen fellowship with the Father not substitute it. The work load is great and this is one of the biggest dangers I see.’

      I remember one of my professors reminding us that we really need to be careful with trying to put a weight on ourselves with the nagging question of, ‘Have I been spending time with God lately.’ He reminded us that we are delving into His Word regularly and learning a lot in our studies. We are spending time with God more than most. Yes, it can bog us down and feel academic rather than relational at times. So we have to learn to guard against such an outlook. But we can be encouraged to adjust our mindset of seeing the classroom as that academic setting and our devotional time as something different outside of the classroom. We learn to guard against creating a dualism as we realise He is with us in classroom and out of classroom. We can learn to develop a conversational relationship day in and day out. That is a challenge, something we need to grow in. But it is encouraging in letting all the ‘rules’ of how we relate to God fall to way side and embrace every aspect of our life as part of growth in our relational intimacy with our Father.

      I know you are aware of this, but I wanted to encourage you with what I was encouraged with. I think that brings freedom.

    • Jason Chamberlain

      Personally, I have found that I need to keep my devotional and academic reading separate. I find that my reading is different for school than it is for personal devotions. There are times when my reading for school also nourishes my soul, but usually it just feeds my head.

      I realize that this is an age-old debate. I think the important thing is to pay attention to what you’re doing so that you make sure there is some time when your soul gets Living Water from the Word.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Actually, I’d have to say I agree with you both. I do have separate devotions in the morning but then I strive to make my academic learning devotional as well, in reading, writing assignments and the classroom. And even in greek, if that’s possible. Reflecting on what the perfect tense means in particular passages can be quite powerful and seeing how the author is using language to emphasize key theological truths. Mark Young, who I mentioned previously will be the new president of Denver Seminary, is my World Missions prof and recently made a similar encouragement of not allowing the Bible to become a textbook through this learning process.

    • Dr. G.

      Does Dallas Theological cover much “higher criticism” or its successors: purely rational/scientific Biblical Criticism and Theology?

      As a challenging exposure, to a different tradition or school?

      If we wanted that kind of education, what would be the top three or four schools?

    • Joseph

      The internetmonk has a great post right now on why we need to get rid of some theology.

      It’s sad to say, and maybe I’m just being stubborn, but I have really oriented myself away from ‘intellectual’ Christianity. I’m in a discernment process about going into ordained ministry and I just don’t want to go to seminary.

    • ScottL

      Joseph –

      I would saying the requirement of going to seminary to be appointed (ordained) into church leadership (I use ‘leadership’ because we are all in ‘ministry’, meaning we are all called to serve Christ, His body and the world) is a bit of a wrong emphasis. Do know that I have no problem with theological training. I did a graduate degree in seminary as well, and quite an academic seminary at that. But I am in church leadership (elder/pastor) and it had nothing to do with my seminary degree. I got it for my own learning sake and so I could teach at the college level. Leadership has to do with calling. So, be encouraged that you don’t have to employ 3 years in seminary to be qualified for such leadership, well, unless the church you really want to lead it makes that a requirement. And I would say that is not the best of emphases. Get on with it if God is stirring such, but it is not the requirement.

      I’m sure you are aware of all this. Just a little encouragement.

    • ScottL

      Jason –

      Yes, we need personal devotional/quiet time to cultivate intimacy. But conversational relationship with our God is available in the classroom, as it is in brushing our teeth or cooking a meal. I know you know this, but we have to be careful that we don’t dichotomise life so much. Now, the challenge becomes on cultivating such while studying Greek or theological nuances that you never dreamed of. But, somehow, God is still close, still dwelling within, as you know.

    • Dr. G.


      I understand what you mean. Still … there are some ways to go through a serious seminary, and still come out an – admittedly chastened, less dogmatic – believer.

      I was unable to find the exact discussion on internetmonk; which discussion?

      In any case, if you want just a peek at some rather intellectual theology online, you might check the comment by “Kent” in theologyforum.wordpress; one of the discussions on inerrancy. Which I criticize, but still like in some ways. It admits inadequacies, human flesh errors, even in our best ideas about God.

      If you want to skip seminary? A formal education? Probably the best simple protection against error, in that case … is at least, be accepting, “grace”ous, “humble,” and not dogmatic. If we don’t have a lot of formal education, but continually admit and keep in mind, that we are flawed, and don’t know everything, that can make up for a lot.

      On the other hand though, if we both 1) don’t have much knowledge, formal or otherwise … and 2) yet still go ahead, and start pounding the table dogmatically, about what God is like? That would be the worst combination; it would not be the answer, I think.

      The simple answer is probably: be Humble. Even when we are preaching, trying to tell others what God is like, keep in mind our own ideas can always be flawed.

    • mbaker

      From my observation of pastors during my own years of ministry: The best ones tend to be balanced between pastoring their flocks in a manner which both recognizes and meets their immediate needs, and also leads them deeper spiritually by teaching both relationship with Christ and sound biblical doctrine.

      I marvel at the discernment and the commitment that must take.

      I truly wish you well, Lisa. It sounds as if you are on the right track.

    • Dr. G.


      Still looking for an answer on #10 if you have the time someday: that is, what would be the three or four top seminaries or graduate schools, even in the world, for the most intellectual/rational study of theology, Religion, etc.?

    • Jason Chamberlain

      Scott — thanks for your comment. I’m definitely not trying to create a formal dichotomy; however, I find that one naturally happens. I read a little bit of Greek every day to stay fresh with my Greek, but it’s hard for that to have the same impact on my soul as when I just read in English.

      I was so excited when I first took Systematic thinking that it would deepen my intimacy with God tremendously. Looking back, it did help, but not at the time. I just have a hard time going from the memorization of data for an exam and having that also speak to my heart. I don’t try to create this difference, but there seems to be one for me.

      I greatly admire and even envy those who can make sermon preparation into a devotional time too. I just don’t think that is me right now. That is why I still keep a separate reading plan and memorization schedule.

    • Jason Chamberlain

      Joseph — Although seminary is often aptly nicknamed “cemetary,” learning theology still has much value, as does learning the languages. Seminary will help you think through a lot of things in a deeper way than you are likely to do on your own. I doubt that Michael Spencer regrets any of his formal theological education.

      I think of it like learning music. You have to learn some fundamentals before you can tear them apart and call it “jazz.”

    • mbaker

      “I think of it like learning music. You have to learn some fundamentals before you can tear them apart and call it “jazz.””

      Great analogy, Jason.

      Getting the necessary fundamentals does not necessarily turn one into a pulpit pounding, Bible bashing, foaming at the mouth fundamentalist. It simply establishes some Godly boundaries between truth and error.

      God is very precise in His measurements just as the musical scale is, but He gives us a wide range of possibilities as to how to teach and preach His word, as long as we build our own words upon the foundation He has already established. Otherwise our various ministries can wind up off the grid, on one side or another, like the leaning tower of Pisa.

      I wish you well in your continuing studies too.

      God bless.

    • Susan

      Hi Lisa, Thanks for your good observations and insights from ‘inside’.

    • Joseph

      Thanks for the encouragement, everyone!

      The pastor of the church where I am a member was very much on board the entire formal process. But the pastor of the church where I am on staff gave me advice very similar to ScottL’s – follow your calling and there’s nothing stopping you from leading right now. He even admitted there advantages to not being ordained; you can lead both inside and outside the structure and not be part of the ‘establishment.’

      And to that point, I can’t bless the elements, but I can take them with me after the service and serve communion to people at home. I got to do the pastoral prayer at Easter. I’ve been a part of the laying on of hands with baptisms and such. I’m getting encouraged to preach. I have felt the Holy Spirit move people through me. So, really, there’s nothing stopping me from following my calling – assuming I ever figure out what it really is.

      Part of my thing is I already have a degree in engineering and an MBA, along with a gazillion hours in different leadership and technology classes. I worked in R&D with all sorts of complicated concepts, but now I’m retired and my middle-life transition has moved me to the other end of the spectrum. I want to *feel*, not think. I feel closest to God when I make myself shut up and stop thinking.

      I am anything but dogmatic and inflexible as I pretty much hated Christians for those things, along with hypocrisy, cruelty et al, most of my life. I thought you all were brainwashed fools and at one point I said I’d never enter a church again. It took until my mid-40s for me to open my heart to God and I was only baptized 3 years ago.

      So the last thing I want to claim is that I know the Truth. The jazz example is a good one, but so is rock. Before I could really play, I had to unlearn all the lessons I got and throw away the books. I learned to listen and develop my ear by copying what I heard without thinking about technique or theory.

      Here’s that discussion I mentioned:

      Thanks so much for all your comments! I am blown away that you would spend, maybe waste, your time on a newbie like me.

      Peace and Grace

      I just realized I typed this entire essay without mentioning the word seminary once. Hmm.

    • Lisa Robinson

      Dr G, yes topics of higher criticism most naturally come up, particularly in the systematic theology classes and Bible exposition. So as I have covered bibliology, trinitarianism and Old Testment history I so far higher criticism has been addressed. Again, I am just finishing my first year, so I would defer to a graduate like Michael or Roger. Michael, Roger????

      In terms of schools that deal primarily with higher criticism, I am not sure from which angle you are asking this. I would imagine that all your divinity type schools most readily teach it as their foundation. I remember when I was considering seminary and a friend of mine who graduated from Howard School of Divinity was asking that I consider it. But because of its liberal foundation with respect to inspiration, inerrancy and christology I would never consider a school like that. Even though she was a serious believer, that education did impact her views on inerrancy, unfortunately. So again, I am not sure if this is what you are asking.

    • Kara Kittle


      “Getting the necessary fundamentals does not necessarily turn one into a pulpit pounding, Bible bashing, foaming at the mouth fundamentalist. It simply establishes some Godly boundaries between truth and error.”

      You’ve been to my church? Tell me the next time you come there and I will say hello. LOL.

      Bible bashing, foaming at the mouth…good visual. I am enjoying it immensely.

    • Lisa Robinson


      Welcome to the site. One of the many things that I like about it here is the diversity of backgrounds and Christian experiences represented by the everyone that participates.

      I find that you are not alone in your aversion to seminary or “intellectualized” Christianity as you put it. I’d like to unpack a little of what you said. I think there is a difference between intellectual Christianity and intellectual only Christianity. The former enhances Christianity and builds a strong foundation the latter, tears it down. One of the things that prompted me to write this was the misperception that seminary falls into that latter category and therefore, has no real basis in spiritual life and leadership.

      I’m going to push back on something Scott said about leadership not requiring seminary. Leadership is leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. I would say, depending on the level of leadership, formal training would be wise and in my opinion, a very humble thing to do. I am reminded that teachers bear the stricter judgment and should give one pause in how they are communicating God’s precious word, which is essentially communicating God Himself. Not to mention, that our 21st century Christianity is not contained in a vacuum. We’ve had 2,000+ of development around doctrine AND distortions. I think it makes sense to know what that is.

      I used to be part of churches where leaders were convinced they had a lock on truth, or the “move of God” because of experience. These same ones rejected seminary, citing it as intellectual and therefore, non-spiritual. I would later come to learn that some of the doctrine founded in this spiritual increase was inconsistent with the Biblical witness of Scripture. Yet, these “inconsistent” truths were communicated as if it was. I shudder at the thought of miscommunicating God to people.

      So this in no ways should be construed as me saying you should go to seminary. But just some points to consider about the reasons. As I mentioned, seminary training in and of itself is fruitless unless built into the foundation of pointing people to Christ and strengthening His church. One can use seminary for the reverse affect too.

    • ScottL

      Jason –

      I do understand the separation/dichotomy. I am sorry if I sounded super-spiritual as if in everything I do I sense the closeness of God. That is not true. I guess what I would encourage is that, even when we don’t feel/sense the closeness, we still recognise it’s true. We will get on with our more intellectual things, but we are still growing, learning, etc, and He is still close. It’s all part of the whole, as you know.


    • Jason Chamberlain

      ScottL — I know what you mean. I am learning that not every verse has a direct application. Sometimes (often?) the application is simply that it tells me more about who God is. Really I think that is what a lot of the study does for me. It tells me more about the nature of God and thereby deepens my faith. I don’t get a lot of “gospel goosebumps” from reading my Systematic book or translating Hebrew, but ultimately these studies help me to know God better.

      Hopefully through this time of education I can then do a better job of telling others about God so that they may know Him better, amen?

    • Lisa Robinson

      Jason, you’ll get an amen from me. And I would take what you said about knowing God better and use the connecting thread of intentionality to where Scott is talking about. In other words, I think we have to be real intentional with topics like systematic theology or church history or greek or hebrew to reflect on the nature of God, in a devotional kind of way. Not to produce the “goosebumps” but to let the truths that come up really settle in our hearts. This is something I try to do because it did occur to me that I was beginning to look at things very academically and started losing focus on the foundation. I also am a little geeky about reading scholarly work…for fun sometimes, and this can further create that chasm.

    • Leslie

      Lisa, you very well know how much I love DTS. Thanks for the comprehensive ananlysis.

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